The ubiquitous ball head is a bit of a staple in the world of landscape photography and I suggest that its success has more to do with form rather than function. The ball head doesn’t have any of the handles that characteristically poke out from the sides of other tripod head designs. The lack of appendages makes the whole thing decidedly easier to pack but the convenience does come at a cost, specifically when you find yourself needing to make an adjustment to your camera’s position along a single axis.
Loosening the ball head’s one giant fastener renders the whole joint floppy and grants the camera the unsolicited freedom to move along all axes. Sure, you can control the camera’s unwelcome independence with a deft touch and a certain feel for the latent friction in the system. However, the entire exercise of precisely adjusting the knob to the correct tension so that it allows slip without slop is rather messy and a far cry from the authority commanded by those using heads with independent controls for each axis.
The entire problem of unwanted camera freedom is further aggravated when we begin speaking about securing the camera at angles that are grossly inclined to the horizon, like, for instance, when shooting in portrait orientation. All the ball heads that I’m aware of are manufactured with a little notch machined into the socket section of the device, which allows the camera to rest at 90° to the base. The notch works perfectly, assuming, of course, that you have managed to fiddle the lengths of the tripod legs such that it is standing completely perpendicular to the ground. My experience, on the other hand, suggests that getting a tripod into a position that is at right angles to Mother Earth is nigh impossible and, frankly, if it were a feat that was easily accomplished, there would be no need for a tripod head to begin with.
Principally, if you want a level horizon while shooting in portrait orientation, you are invariably going to be forced to raise the camera away from its 90° rest position. This means that when you slacken that one big knob responsible for providing all the friction necessary to hold your camera at, say, 80°, the camera will be freewheeling and subject to the worst of what gravity can muster. This situation represents the cruellest manifestation of the ball head’s inherent instability as it usually sees the desire to make one small adjustment on a single axis translated into multiple inadvertent and significantly larger adjustments on all axes. It can be very frustrating!
It goes without saying, then, that the weight of your camera will have an enormous impact on the magnitude of the forces involved with the freewheeling debacle and, accordingly, the size of the debacle itself. A featherweight mirrorless camera will always be easier to restrain than a hefty SLR. Nonetheless, the ball head is designed, more or less, to do its finest work in the vertical position. The ball head manages its inherent floppiness best when operating upright and this position has the added benefit of also keeping the camera’s centre of gravity in line with the centreline of the tripod. It is the position that grants the greatest stability and control in the otherwise unsteady world of ball heads. If, like me, you seem to attract scenes that require photos be taken with the camera in the portrait orientation, then you really want to be using the ball head in the upright position when shooting like that, too.
To achieve this upright portrait orientation requires an L-bracket, which is little more than a standard ball head quick release plate that has been extended out and wrapped around the side of the camera. It screws into the same threaded hole on the bottom of the camera body used by any ordinary quick release plate and slides in and out of the ball head clamp just as any other plate would. The only difference is that the L-bracket is bent far enough around the side of the camera that it effectively allows the camera to be fastened to the ball head from the side. It is this that in turn allows the camera to be mounted in a portrait orientation while the ball head remains vertical.
Having an L-bracket attached to your camera has a few shortcomings, though. First, the outline of your camera body grows a smidge, given that you have a piece of aluminium bolted to the outside and, second, access to the ancillary ports – USB, HDMI, cable release and so on – are also somewhat obstructed by the presence of the bracket. However, none of these failings are anywhere near great enough an impediment that they might overshadow the resulting improvement in tripod function. Even if the L-bracket was twice the size and three times the weight, I would remain steadfast in my opinion that it is a life-changing piece of kit.
I fear that no matter what I write, the only way to truly appreciate just how an L-bracket will enhance the control you have over your camera when mounted to a tripod is to first suffer without one. Only then will buying one lead to the overwhelming sense of satisfaction that follows a good purchasing decision. The L-bracket is a surprisingly unorthodox piece of equipment that I hold in the highest possible regard. It’s a piece of kit that won’t necessarily improve your photos but will undoubtedly improve your photography.
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